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Fuzzy Math

by Moni T // Published August 10, 2007

435 mini-elections for president are worse than one.

A FairVote Innovative Analysis

Fact in the Spotlight: In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote by a small margin, but lost the Electoral College vote. Gore"s margin of victory in the popular vote was 0.52%, but Bush"s Electoral College margin of victory was 0.93%. Had a congressional district system of allocating electoral votes been in place, Bush's electoral vote margin of victory would have been 7.06%, eight times an already distorted result. (from FairVote"s new Wrong-Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral College Votes)

There are Republicans in California who are tired of being voiceless in presidential elections. Totally understandable. Likewise, there are Democrats in North Carolina who think they should have a chance to be heard as well. Who can blame them? In both states (in fact, in most states) the Electoral College renders a huge portion of their electorates utterly mute and irrelevant.

To combat this, some Republicans in California and Democrats in North Carolina want to see their states" electoral votes awarded by congressional district rather than by winner-take-all. That way, the Golden State"s GOP can presumably deliver a score of electoral votes to their party"s nominee, and Democrats of the Old North can give five for their team otherwise have none. That"s fair, right?

Not quite. While allocation by congressional district gives more weight to a state"s oft-frustrated minority party in a presidential race, it can by no means be considered to yield an accurate representation of the will of the electorate at large. Literally, the only way to achieve that is to have straight-up election of the president by national popular vote.

Here"s why. Under the congressional district or system of allocating electoral votes, each U.S. House district in a state would elect one presidential elector, while the statewide winner would take the two Senate seats. The electoral votes corresponding to House districts would be split among the various presidential slates, and whichever slate wins the statewide popular vote would automatically win the two Senatorial electoral votes. So think of those two electoral votes as a fun "bonus prize" - for the state"s winner.

On paper, it sounds fair. After all, it"s the way we divvy up representation in the Congress! This plan utterly fails, however, in two important criteria: equitable distribution of electoral votes that better represent the popular will, and increased competitiveness in presidential elections.

In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote by a small margin, but lost the Electoral College vote. Gore"s margin of victory in the popular vote was 0.52%, but Bush"s Electoral College margin of victory was 0.93%. By itself, the Electoral College creates a distortion between the national vote and electoral vote results. Some assume a district-by-district vote would better represent the popular will, but just the opposite is true. Had congressional district allocation been in place in 2000, Bush"s electoral vote margin of victory would have been 7.06%! That"s 8 times an already distorted result.

Even at its most anemic, allocation by congressional districts only maintains the innate distortions of the Electoral College, as in 1968 where Nixon"s 0.7% lead over Humphrey in the popular vote translated to a 20.95% lead in the Electoral College. With congressional district allocation, Nixon would have won in the Electoral College by 19.3%. It would hardly have served to better represent the will of the people. Under this system, in 1976 Jimmy Carter would only have defeated Jerry Ford because of the District of Columbia"s three electoral votes despite winning by 2% in the national popular vote.

The current system allows candidates to totally write off entire states and regions of the country because of their partisan predictability. The congressional district plan fails to correct for that flaw because every geographic area will have some degree of partisanship, be that a congressional district or an entire state. Just as "swing states"are now the sole focus of campaigns" attention, so would "swing districts"be the only districts worth fighting over if electoral votes were to be so allocated. In just under 7% of districts the difference in the 2004 presidential vote was 2% or less. That"s 29 out of 435 districts that were truly borderline. Even looking at the map more generously, only 55 districts were won by 4% or less. Considering that number, a meager 12.6% of districts in the United States would be the beneficiaries of candidates" concern. The other 380 districts might just as well sit the election out.

There is no doubt that the Electoral College system needs to be reformed. Far too few voters are able to take part in the process in any real way, and the will of the electorate as a whole is not being accurately represented. But while a system of 51 separate presidential elections is bad in its own right, having 435 mini-elections (486 if you includie D.C. and each state), would be even worse. The best way to make presidential elections fair, competitive, and accountable to the greatest number of people is to elect the president by a national popular vote. Only then will a Republican in a blue state and a Democrat in a red state have a voice as audible as any Ohioan"s or Floridian"s.